Saturday, August 11, 2018

62 (2018-2019): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2018: SERIES B (seen August 9, 2018)

"Three Nonidentical Stage Plays"

Series B. the second set of three one-acts at this year’s Summer Shorts festival, is only marginally better than Series A. That’s because it concludes with what is perhaps the best play in the festival, “Sparring Partners,” written by its best-known playwright, Neil LaBute, returning for his 10th consecutive season. The other two plays, Claire Zajdel’s “The Plot” and Eric Lane’s “Ibis,” are little more than undercard matches, neither of them a contender, placeholders for the main event.

The plays are performed on the same neutral, adaptable set of a curtain-like background with a central arch, designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, used in Series A. The lighting is by Greg MacPherson, the sound design and original music by Nick Moore, the costumes by Amy Sutton, and the projections—from gravestones to noirish images to scattered numbers—by Joshua Langman.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Series B is bookended by plays featuring verbal sparring. It opens with Zajdel’s “The Plot,” a featherweight family drama featuring a brother and sister in their mid to late 20s. Frankie Novak (Molly Broome) is an uptight lawyer just beginning her career at a big firm. Tyler Novak (Jake Robinson), her smartass, slacker brother, is a “freelancer. With emphasis on the word free.”
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These contrasting siblings meet early one morning at the Niles, Illinois, cemetery, where their mom, Debra, has purchased family plots at a bargain price, even having her own headstone placed there. Their mission is to approve the site, even though mom has chosen not to come, communicating her unheard commentary via cellphone. Clearly, these grown children will be subject to their demanding mother’s authority even beyond this world.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As they plod about on the plots, Frankie’s spikes sinking in the sod, the siblings exchange mutually snarky swipes. These cover religion (their background is Catholic), life and death, the afterlife, cremation, depression, responsibility, their rivalry for mom’s affection, their parent’s separation, and their romantic futures. We’re in a graveyard, so ghosts also float into the dialogue. A few amusing quips, though, aren’t enough to compensate for “The Plot” being a play in search of a plot.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In Series A, the characters do little but sit so you’d think a Series B play set in a cemetery with no visible benches would force them to stand. You’d be wrong, as the script finds opportunities for Frankie and Tyler not only to sit but lie and kneel on the grass, with the expected consequences for her lawyerly slacks. A seriously ridiculous scene (and a rare example of energetic physical activity) involves Frankie trying to dig up the headstone with one of her expensive shoes. Groome and Robinson do their best to overcome the exaggerations of their material, getting little help from director James Reese. This one is D.O.A.
Deandre Sevon, Lindsey Broad. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Equally lackluster is Eric Lane’s “Ibis,” which begins in a film noir style. Director Terry Berliner can do little more with this stylistic requirement than provide some mildly noirish music and a projection of light streaming through venetian blinds.
Lindsey Broad, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lane’s premise is that an African-American man named Tyrone (Deandre Sevon), 27, hires a female private eye with the pseudonym Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad) to find his long-missing father, Victor. In what Lane must think is droll humor, Sam Spade pretends never to have heard of Humphrey Bogart or The Maltese Falcon, although the dialogue soon engages in geeky movie references.
Harold Surratt, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tyrone’s mother has just passed away from cancer and he’s determined to locate Victor (Harold Surratt), who abandoned the family 20 years earlier and whose disappearance has produced a slew of rumors as to what became of him. Tracking Victor down proves fairly easy, given a certain change in his fortunes (hey, you never know). Reluctant father and anxious son thereby have a tense reunion. Eventually, their sentimental journey toward reconciliation concludes when Tyrone uses his mathematical gifts to prove that his emotionally resistant dad, who had a similar relationship with his own father, still has him on his mind.
Harold Surratt, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Neither the situation, the humor, nor the shifting styles click. Aside from Surratt’s effectiveness as Victor, the other roles are miscast, with both Sevon and Broad lacking the required gravitas, the former being decidedly lightweight, the latter seeming more like a pretty college student in a black leather jacket than the Camels-voiced, hard-bitten P.I. the role suggests.

Regardless of her importance to the setup, Sam, whose potentially interesting past remains unexplored, turns out to be something of a red herring, dropping out well before the play ends. In fact, given what leads to Victor’s discovery, and the play’s reliance on coincidence, Tyrone could likely have found his father by himself. By the time “Ibis” ends, we’ve moved from film noir to film blah.
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With the program on the ropes, Neil LaBute’s “Sparring Partners,” while a minor work about a conventional office romance, nonetheless lands one on the chin with its tightly scripted, granularly acted depiction of the relationship between the anonymously named Man (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) and Woman (Joanna Christie). (Playwrights: enough with the Man-Woman/He-She nominals! Do we really need the morality play labels? Will a play about a transgender character use the pronoun They?)
KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Woman, who is single, works for Man, who is married. The pair, mutually attracted, are having lunch on a park bench outside their place of employment. (Is there a rule that every one-act festival include at least one park bench play?) Their usual lunch activity is to play a trivia game involving movie stars and their films, a game at which Woman is much the better player, to Man’s deepening frustration. Much stage time is occupied by the game, which serves as a cover for their subtextual yearnings.
KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Man is attracted to Woman but not so much that he’ll risk his marriage, depressing as it is. Woman, increasingly desperate, wants to move the affair to another level, forcing Man, fearful of going too far, to politely deflect her attentions, or else stop their meetings altogether. When Man’s wife calls him—isn’t it time cell phones got billing in the program?—we see just how much he’s under her thumb.

Woman uses the expression “an affair of the mind,” suggesting that, for all Man’s seemingly above-board behavior, he enjoys the thrill of the relationship, in which he exploits his power over his romantic adversary without having to see things through to a physical conclusion. 
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
What makes the play work are the subtle tensions in the characters’ relationship in terms of timing, nuance, and emotional reactions. Less successful is an implausible sequence in which the otherwise knowledgeable and canny Woman must be informed of her misuse of the word “gorgon” to refer to a man.
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although this is yet another play about people sitting around talking, director J.J. Kandel makes the most of it, handling the ebb and flow of revelation, humor, rivalry, flirting, and recrimination with tasteful discrimination. Jones and Christie come closer to behaving like real people than any others in either series, creating a fine-tuned blend of script and performance in which each lifts the other to a higher level.

“Sparring Partners” may not be a championship play but, set against those it follows, it wins Series B by a TKO.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 1